NFL’s complaints about new Special Master ruling miss the mark

On Sunday, Special Master Stephen Burbank issued a ruling in combined cases involving a pair of undrafted free agents signed by the Dolphins in 2009.  Both players received small signing bonuses.  And both players thereafter quit playing football.

The Dolphins then tried to recover from tackle SirVincent Rogers and tight end Jared Bronson the sum of their signing bonuses:  $8,000 and $7,000, respectively.

And the Dolphins lost.

And the league isn’t happy about it.

In a posting at, the ruling is characterized as a failure by Burbank “to enforce the players’ contract promises that they freely negotiated.”

“The CBA was never intended to allow players who violate their contracts, commit crimes, or quit on their teams to keep bonus money paid to them in good faith by the clubs, whether it’s $7,000 or much more,” NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said.  “This is money that should be available to rookies and veterans who actually perform, but the union has continually sought rulings that allow players who breach their contracts to take the money and run.  The illogical and unintended consequences of these rulings are one of the many reasons why the current CBA needs to be changed.  We are committed to addressing this issue in our negotiations with the NFLPA and reaching a CBA that prevents these kinds of results in the future.”

It all sounds good.  But it overlooks the real reason for the Dolphins’ defeat.  At the risk of straying too far into legalese, here’s what happened.

1.  The Collective Bargaining Agreement — to which the NFL agreed — significantly restricts the ability of teams to recover bonus money.  Under the 2006 CBA, only signing bonus money may be recovered in the event of a holdout or retirement.  (The CBA also makes partial forfeitures automatic for suspensions under the steroids policy.)  No other bonus money may be forfeited, and signing bonus money may not be recovered under any other circumstances, such as team-imposed suspensions or incarcerations.

2.  The CBA plainly states that the forfeiture of signing bonus money for holdout or retirement are not automatic, but that the players and the teams “may agree” to these provisions.

3.  The Dolphins, like many other teams, still include broad bonus forfeiture language in their contracts, with a “savings clause” that purports to give the teams maximum forfeiture rights under the CBA if the broad bonus forfeiture language is invalidated.

4.  Burbank essentially decided that the bonus forfeiture language is too broad, and that the “savings clause” isn’t sufficient to constitute an affirmative agreement by the players to forfeit signing bonus money in the event of a holdout or retirement.

So, frankly, the NFL is looking to externalize blame for a bad outcome.  But if the NFL wants to blame someone, the NFL should blame the lawyers who decided to draft the contracts the way that the Dolphins drafted them.

And instead of complaining about the outcome, Pash and the rest of the NFL’s legal team should be digesting Burbank’s decision and devising a way to secure maximum forfeiture rights under the current CBA — and also to take advantage of any enhanced forfeiture rights that the NFL may secure via the next labor deal.

The league also should be working on its appeal of Burbank’s decision.  Then again, the appeal is headed for the desk of Judge David Doty, whom the NFL tried unsuccessfully to have kicked off the case due to allegations of player bias.

As we’ve said in the past, if the NFL liked Judge Doty’s rulings, the NFL never would have made that move.

Finally, Burbank and Doty are the men who’ll eventually decide whether television contracts that pay the owners billions during a work stoppage violate the CBA, essentially drying up the owners’ primary source of revenue for making big-dollar debt payments if a lockout is imposed.

13 responses to “NFL’s complaints about new Special Master ruling miss the mark

  1. SirVincent Rogers
    Me and Kid Sensation and that home away from home
    In the Black Benz Limo with the cellular phone

  2. i hope he takes away the tv contracts in a lockout. then they pretty much gotta let them play

  3. I really had to google “SirVincent” to make sure that someone actually named their kid that….kinda like that guy “YourHighness Morgan” – I guess the baby momma’s think their children are royalty…

  4. So, DeMaurice Smith, when did you start using ‘Mike Florio’ as a pseudonym?
    Irony here – as Florio criticizes other media for being mouthpieces of the league, he himself is a union boy. That’s the irony here. He doesn’t like Fox News, so he becomes MSNBC and thinks he’s more objective than FN. Laughable.
    The NFL is perfectly right to pursue bonus $$ within the CBA provisions for the very reasons these players up and quit. It’s about precedent.
    And, while, of course, the NFL doesn’t like Doty; the fact is, he IS a union judge. I don’t like a number of things the NFL does and there are problems; but the reality is, the union and Mr. Florio’s views criticizing the league show equally a lack of objectivity.

  5. youngman44,
    Ease up on the unions. Usually the only people knocking unions are: the executives who bloat their bank accounts while railing on union demands, phony right-wing talking-heads (ahem, ahem, Fox News, ahem, ahem), the zombie followers of those talking-heads, and people who get taken advantage of by their employer because they’re not in a strong union (see: misery loves company).
    Without unions the majority of Americans would be peasants working 18-hour days from the age of 12 on. And America would be second-rate because of it. It’s a strong middle-class with the capital to purchase and invest and take some professional risks that make this country as strong as it is. Trickle-down economics is debunked garbage. That route only exaggerates the divide between the haves and have-nots and rots the country from the inside out.
    I know this is straying from the topic of this post a bit, but Florio isn’t some kind of union stooge — at least not in any way that could be told from this article. As an ex-lawyer, he’s simply analyzing the legal issues in play in this decision.
    You’re clearly someone who falls into one (or more) of the 4 categories of union bashers I mentioned above. I just felt the need to respond because union bashers, I’m afraid, are loud as hell and dumber than dirt.

  6. whatever the CBA said aside, you’d have to side with the Dolphins on the original case.
    If you pay players a signing bonus, which is an advance payment for playing for the next year, and then you quit (read: are not cut), I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the team to want it’s money back.
    The time I’d side with the players is if the Dolphins cut them – but this wasn’t the case. Pathetic they lost that case, just goes to show how pro-player the previous CBA was I guess.

  7. Greetings, I like your blog. This is a cool site and I wanted to post a note to let you know, nice job! Thanks Katy

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